Starke County considering new jail

Starke County’s jail is the second oldest in Indiana and police say they’re in dire need of an upgrade.

Built in the 1970s, the jail’s rated to hold up to 62 inmates. But there are more criminals being arrested in the county than there are beds.

To help cope with the overcrowding, county leaders set up an agreement with Pulaski County to take some of the overflow.

“We've been given a good price from Pulaski County presently, but it's $20 in addition to what we normally budgeted,” said Starke County Council President David Pearman. “But, that can range anywhere from that price to $80 a day trying to house inmates in other sites.”

Police have also been forced to get creative to help reduce the number of inmates at the small jail.

“When we get overcrowded, we look to alternatives to incarceration – letting people out, lowering bonds,” said Starke County Sheriff Oscar Cowen.

But those are only temporary solutions.

The Starke County Council and county commissioners say they need to build a new jail.

Wednesday night was the last in a series of public meetings detailing the proposed plans.

The new facility would be nearly twice the size of the current jail and cost no more than $14 million.

Part of the project would be funded through bonds, while the other half would come in the form of an income tax increase.

“We're looking at a 0.65 percent increase,” Pearman said. “That’s about $240 or $250 per year for a person that's making $40,000 a year.”

The new facility would have 108 beds, with the possibility to add 32 more if initial bids come in under budget.

But the proposed design wouldn’t just help curb overcrowding.

“Obviously some crimes are more serious than others,” Cowen said. “And that's one problem we do have with our facility, of not being able to segregate the lesser criminals compared to the more violent.”

Starke County has also had problems because of an increase in the number of female inmates over the years.

When Cowen started working in law enforcement in 1980, he says it was rare to house even one female overnight. Now, he says the jail holds between 13 to 15 female inmates on a regular basis.

While turnout at the public meetings was low, the residents who did come were mostly in support of the project, some because of a pending lawsuit against the county.

The lawsuit claims the jail is so overcrowded the conditions violate inmates’ constitutional rights.

Some residents say they’d rather have the county build a new jail now on their own terms rather than have a judge tell them how to build one if the lawsuit moves forward.

But other residents are worried about the portion of the cost they’ll be shouldering.

“It’s a concern to myself the cost of building a new jail,” Cowen said. “But obviously with a newer facility, we'd probably be able to incarcerate the more serious criminals for a longer period of time rather than figuring out ways to release them.”

The County Council will discuss feedback from the public meetings at its Aug. 6 meeting.

The council and commissioners could vote on the proposal as early as Aug. 20.

If approved, the new jail would be built on a 4- to 10-acre site. The county doesn’t have a specific piece of land in mind, but would ideally like it to be close to the county courthouse.

Upon completion of the new jail, the old Starke County Jail would be renovated and re-purposed.

County leaders have discussed transforming the building into office space, the prosecutor’s office or the new home of the community transition program.

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